This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 25th August 1997, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

“In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves.”


This is a location name and refers to a place in Northumberland on the edges of "Wark Forest". It is less isolated than formerly since the "Pennine Way" now circles round on a radius of approximately ¼ mile on its Western side. Otherwise the nearest place of any size is Wark, to the East on the Wall-Otterburn Road (B 6320).

Hetherington has a counterpart in Northamptonshire but that has now evolved into Harrington. This was first recorded in Domesday (1086) as "Arintone" but nearly a century later (1184) it was described as "Hederington" and later as "Hetheringtone" (1288), then "Hezerinton" (1236) and finally as "Hetherington" in 1249.

At what date it converted to "Harrington" is not ascertainable nor the reason why it should have changed except. possibly, the presence of Harringworth (15 miles North-East) might have had something to do with it.

There is no connection with either Harrington in Cumberland or Lincolnshire. In spite of the same spelling, the origins are quite different. Hetherington is also encountered as "Heatherington", "Etherington", and "Ethrington" but these variations are not significant.

The name is made up principally of two units which are firstly which are, firstly, "Hether" and, secondly, "-ton".

The element "Hether-" is interesting because although it looks like "Heather" (i.e. the purple plant 'Erica') there is no connection. In Scotland and much of the North of England, this familiar shrub was originally called "Hadder". In the Midlands and the Southern Regions the word "heath" was certainly used but in this case it was merely an extension of the same expression which described wild, uncultivated areas, such as "Hounslow Heath".

Often it was particularised as the "heath plant". In between, especially on the Yorkshire Moors and areas of Scandinavian influence the imported Nordic "ling" was current. However, as well as in the South, the term "heath" was also used in the North and in Scotland in the same sense as descriptive of Moorland. But it is important to remember that "hadder" and "heath" came from two entirely different origins.

However by the Eighteenth Century a writer on Scottish Matters took it into his head that the two words were related and concocted "heather" and introduced it into one of his pieces in 1730.

So it follows that "Hetherington" cannot, nor was ever interpreted as something like "the place where heather grows". Otherwise it ought to have ended up as "Hadderington". This would have corresponded with our own local "Haddon" which really does mean "the heather-covered hill".

Thus, "Hether" was adopted to describe the surroundings of the early settlement as being "heath", that is to say, wild and wind- swept uplands.

Merely in passing it is interesting to note that on account of heath-lands being so barren and remote and so thinly populated, our ancestors avoided them and deemed their few inhabitants positively to be an alien species! This adds some credibility to the suggestion that this is the source of the word "heathen" and especially when it is set alongside the derivation of the word "pagan". The latter was based on the Latin for "field" which was "ager" and the implication was that "field-dwellers" were also a race apart! In early versions of the Scriptures, for example, the term "heathen" appears in contexts where today we would employ "foreign". A good example lies in Mark: VII:26 where the woman was described as a "heathen".

The second, unit, "ton" is another old expression which is believed originally to have meant "barrier" or "fence". It may be detected in the Modern German equivalent of "zaun". It is one of the most widely encountered units in place-names. At first it probably signified nothing more that "the enclosed space" and applied to some sort of arrangement designed to provide both shelter and a defence. Some sites eventually proved more advantageous and they expanded and developed and the word "tun" (the original form) took on an extended meaning and from which the word "Town" emerged.

Finally the intermediate "-ing-" is even more widespread in place- names especially in combination with "-ton". It is capable of a great many interpretations, but in this case it converts "Hether" into an adjective and thereby describes the early settlers as "the heath people".

Assembling all these units, "Hetherington" can be interpreted as "The enclosed settlement belonging to the people who dwell on the heath". As a surname, then, it would simply have indicated that the bearer was "One who lived in Hetherington".

It is doubtful if this name was ever carried far afield by our earlier ancestors who were thus called. The settlement is small and insignificant, so much so that it is not included in the Domesday Book (1086) and the first mention is some 200 years later in 1288. Yet Hexham, only 12 miles away is described in an account dated 681 A.D. So its existence would have been almost unknown beyond a limited radius. The development of surnames shows that the further a person migrated from his native place, the more generalised became his identity among his new neighbours.

In a situation which might have arisen here, "the man from over at Hetherington" might have been understood locally - perhaps as far as Wark and even Hexham, but once he had travelled beyond where the place was recognised, unless another name could be found for him by way of an occupational name or a nick-name, he would have been identified, for example, as "Cumberland" or "North". In Suffolk we find a Thomas de Comerland (1524) and in the same county, in 1230 a Aylmar del North.

The name certainly seems to have taken a long while to establish itself in its own right. Surnames had been evolving ever since the 1300's but the first reference to this one took nearly 400 years to make its appearance. It is a very non-committal entry in a set of Tax returns for York in 1672 and refers to a "Mr Etherington". It is true that earlier references occur to Richard de Hetherington (1298) and to Edmund de Hethrynton (1316) but they, can be related back to the places in the Midlands.

The present-day pattern of distribution of name supports the notion that it remained highly localised. In the Directory taking in the place itself, there are nearly 100 entries, while across the rest of the North-East there are several hundred altogether. These numbers rapidly fall as one moves away. London can muster about 50, Merseyside and Birmingham about 20 each, in Leicester it drops to 12 and after that entries are in single figures.

There was some emigration into Scotland and Ireland. The Northern Ireland Directory contains about 100 names and the most celebrated bearers of the name, William Hetherington (1803-1865) and Sir Hector Hetherington (1888-1965) both came from the Lowlands, over the Border.

There are just under 20 entries in the Local Directory under the form "Hetherington" and a corresponding number under "Etherington". It is well known to us here in Bakewell on account of Graeme Hetherington our Community Policeman.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 25th August 1997.

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